Thursday, June 20, 2024

A user of the Harvard Square community fridge shows off its contents on a February day. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Begun in Germany in 2012 and spreading to Spain’s Basque country in 2015, community fridges designed to to share food and limit waste sprouted up all over the world during our year-plus of pandemic, when food insecurity increased drastically.

Sometimes referred to as “freedges” in the United States, there are now almost 200 nationwide. If there are any silver linings to the coronavirus, the appearance of community fridges could be one.

A sign at the Goree Freedom House explains the idea behind the “Bridge Fridge.” (Photo: Deborah Galef)

Cambridge supports three, all housed in colorful wooden sheds: one outside the Cambridge Community Center in Riverside; another on Church Street in Harvard Square; and a third at the Goree House on Windsor Street in the Port.

While various food pantries exist in Cambridge and elsewhere, their hours are not always convenient for all those who may need food. And some folks feel uncomfortable about appearing needy. For such people, community fridges are godsends: They may be visited at any time, and privately.

Rules vary

Requirements are usually not as rigid as they would be for donations made to, and food coming out of, a food pantry, but they have evolved. Fridges were once designed to be stocked with leftover meals and really anything salvageable, from dumpsters or elsewhere; nowadays contributing from dumpster dives is considered disrespectful, and raises sanitary and health concerns.

While a few fridges are approved to accept homemade meals (leftovers or otherwise) with labels detailing ingredients, most accept only packaged items. Some accept meat and fish, placed directly into the freezer; many don’t. All accept produce, making them a good destination for an abundance in the garden this summer.

Adjacent unrefrigerated pantries, basically cupboards, are places to drop off herbs and spices (if fresh, they go in the fridge), canned goods and even some non-food items. Period products and diapers are much appreciated. Financial donations, used to buy more food and cleaning supplies, are often welcomed via GoFundMe campaigns or the Venmo money transfer app. Most fridges have volunteers who do weekly grocery runs to stock up.

The community fridge outside the Cambridge Community Center in Riverside is colorfully decorated. (Photo: Galef)

Mutual aid

Cambridge City Growers is the group behind the fridge outside the Cambridge Community Center on Callender Street (though the fridge is on the Howard Street side). This relatively new organization, formed to help feed people going hungry during the pandemic, seeks out plots all over the city on which to grow vegetables. The harvested produce is all donated, some of it stocking community fridges at the Goree House in The Port as well as in Riverside.

The local organization Food for Free has volunteers producing more than 1,000 boxes of food weekly with rice, beans, potatoes, carrots, onions, oranges and apples. Four hundred of these boxes are delivered weekly to the food pantry at the Cambridge Community Center, and some of that too ends up in the fridge.

Organizers or location managers coordinate with a host who houses the fridge and supplies electricity. They ensure the fridge is checked daily by volunteers and stays stocked and clean for patrons. The motto “take what you need, leave what you can” represents their community-centered purpose and self-sustaining operations. Also important, in this litigious country of ours, Good Samaritan laws make sure good-faith donors need not worry about being sued.

The ultimate goal is food sovereignty – a community supporting itself through expanding mutual aid networks that stand in solidarity with neighbors experiencing food insecurity, among other needs.

Food goes quickly, as the need is great and donations are always welcome. If you find you’ve bought one too many heads of cauliflower for the recipe you planned to make or bought a bag of carrots only to find that you already had plenty in your own fridge, consider a donation. Or deliberately buy extra and drop it off at one of the fridges on your way home.